Outrage Culture as Mechanism of Control
Katessa Harkey
/ Categories: Taking Liberties

Outrage Culture as Mechanism of Control

Propaganda is Alive and Well.

 “Sign this petition!”

“Donate today!” 

“Contact your leaders!” 

“Go out and break stuff!”

There is no such thing as a free and independent press these days. “The Fourth Estate” is meant to be a check and balance upon the political system as a whole. Journalistic integrity once required that, whatever a reporter's personal bias, his or her materials would at minimum be factually accurate. In a Democratic Republic, it is imperative that the populous be educated on the issues of the day.Modern news outlets have no such compunctions. With the take-over from traditional print publications to on-line outlets, the trend has been toward hyperbolic reporting and headlines meant to generate outrage – also known as “clickbait”. It is no secret why: providers are reliant on advertiser dollars and are in constant competition with one another for “views”.

The blame is not centered solely on them, however. We the public have allowed ourselves to become intellectually lazy, choosing to consume only media that agrees with whatever world-view we most prefer. With the help of social media algorithms, this has led to the creation of an “echo-chamber” effect, in which we never encounter information that runs contrary to our pre-selected points of view. Thus, we reward those outlets which engage in the greatest degree of hyperbole and demonetization of our “opponents”.

In other words, we have chosen propaganda over journalism. The interests of the owners of an outlet and its readership govern the content of materials presented. When the charge of “fake news” is laid, this is what is meant now more so than "alligators under New York" – and everyone is guilty. Rather than performing the proper social role of informing the public, what passes for journalism attempts to shape the attitudes, beliefs and ultimately actions of the readership. It cannot be overstated just how dangerous such a situation is to a free society.

Indeed, it would appear that some media owners are pushing both sides of the narrative, serving up the exact same news with different slants through different platforms.

Psychologists have identified the less-than-flattering reasons for this addiction to moral outrage. According to a recent study, shifting blame to a third-party entity compensates for feelings of personal guilt around a given issue. Expression of outrage also inflates ones' self-conception as a “good” and “moral” person. Such action need not do anything to address the issue, and thus may actually hinder rather than support meaningful change in the real world.

Political officials, parties and organizations have caught on, and are now using these tactics even in their mailings to constituents. Hyperbolic rhetoric creates a sense of urgency that drives involvement and donations. Rather than informing the public of pertinent issues, the goal is to get the reader to take some action in support of or on behalf of the entity. In many cases, these mailings are scatter-shot: they include as many issues as possible in order to capture the attention of the greatest number of viewers.

<p">>Don't care about immigration? How about ecology? How about women's issues? There's something for everyone... Without a nuanced understanding of the issues, sometimes citizens end up in the street protesting against something they are actually for (or vis versa) simply because they have been told they ought to feel outraged. Other times, as with the vagueness of the Women's March, they end up demonstrating for things they never knew the action was about. The organizers don't really care anymore, so long as they get bodies in the street.

This is to say nothing of the disgraceful habit of engaging in ad hominem attacks of ones' political opponents; rather than honestly engaging with the ideas they represent. Name-calling is something we all should have grown out of in the third grade; and it lowers the over-all quality of political discourse.

The outrage-machine may also be used as a distraction to dis-enchanted voters. Consider the current kerfuffle over Session's meetings with the Russian ambassador. As reported in the Observer: 

“The Russia narrative seems to be the prevailing focus of the Democratic party's resistance, and it quashes any opportunity for an agenda to be developed that benefits working-, middle-class and low-income Americans. The Democratic Party’s allegations have yet to be proven by substantive evidence, and—though it warrants additional investigation—the scandal hasn’t produced the results equitable to the attention it has received.”

Rather than addressing the real reasons behind their massive failures this election cycle, the Democratic Party has chosen to manipulate the emotions of their constituency with an outrage narrative straight out of the Cold War-era playbook. While this may buy the party some time, it comes at the cost of the confidence of their more-aware and informed base. The American people are weary of political theater and gamesmanship. We want real leadership that will go to the table for us and negotiate outcomes that benefit everyone.

In the meanwhile, it is up to We the People to fight the outrage machine. How do we do this when all the media is biased? We must follow outlets that disagree with us; in order to give the “other side” a fair hearing. Don't “like” or “share” hyperbolic articles without pointing out the discrepancies with reality. Never forget that your political opponents are still human beings and worthy of basic dignity.

Fact-check articles that seem fishy to you and share your findings in the “comments” section. In a world where facts are as rare as gold, share these when you find them as broadly as possible.

And finally, as a general rule: if the propagandists tell you to do something, don't do it.

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